It’s Like a Metaphor, See?

Pair of pearsWriters are constantly drawing comparisons between apples and oranges. It’s an important part of our job – part of the delight of reading, for many readers, is seeing the similarities between two concepts that may appear to be completely unrelated. It’s clever. It’s interesting. It helps us maintain the illusion that there’s some order and purpose in the universe.

Many of us (myself included) think of “metaphor” as a catch-all term for comparisons made between unlike things. However, that’s not really true; we make a metaphor only when we make that comparison implicitly. “Your grandma’s a fox,” for example, is a proper metaphor. The reader knows from the context of common speech that the speaker really means “Your grandma is attractive and glamorous,” so no further clarification is needed.

That’s the thing about true metaphors: they lack explicit comparative signals, so you need some kind of interpretive context if you don’t want to lose the reader. If you don’t have the space for that context, then what you need is a simile. It does the same job, but it uses “like” or “as” to give you reader a clear signal that a comparison is being made. For example, “Your uncle is as mean as a snake” doesn’t leave the reader wondering how the uncle is like a snake; the comparison is drawn without excessive work on the reader’s part.

Whether you use a metaphor or a simile really does come down to how much effort you want the reader to put into understanding your comparison. This isn’t always an unpleasant effort – indeed, many of us enjoy reading poetry for the challenge of figuring out all the complex metaphors. However, if you don’t want the reader to be distracted by the comparison, or if you think the reader might be confused by it, then a simile is generally your best bet.


Onomatopoeia Makes Your Writing Go “Bang!”

Vescia fountainThe fine art of making up words is typically not something practiced by serious writers. You do, after all, want the reader to focus on the information you’re conveying without being distracted by the language used to convey it.

However, there are times when you do need to be a little inventive with your vocabulary. Onomatopoeia, a poetic device used to describe a sound, invites writers to use whatever combination of syllables they need to represent a noise that their characters have heard. From the ziziziiiiip of a snapping rope to the ka-rak of a gunshot echoing off a distant cliff, there is plenty of room for improvisation when you’re using onomatopoeia in your prose.

As with all attention-grabbing poetic devices, onomatopoeia should be used very carefully. If you use this device to describe every sound your characters hear, you’ll soon find that your prose resembles a fight scene from the old Batman series with Adam West.

Instead, reserve your onomatopoeia for occasions when its effect is really needed. This device has a way of jerking your readers out of the cadence of your narrative and grabbing their attention. It can make an excellent sudden transition between scenes; an attention-grabbing introduction to a chapter; or a satisfying conclusion to a section of your story. However you use it, the onomatopoeia will draw the reader’s focus, so make sure you’re encouraging the reader to focus on a sound that has some significance to the story.

Although I’m usually hesitant to encourage writers to reach for ornate or unusual words, onomatopoeia gives us an occasion where we’re much better off innovating and coming up with a word that perfectly matches the sound you’re trying to communicate. A well-placed an inventive onomatopoeia draws your readers into the story at exactly the right moment.

Personification and Personality

DCP_0136An important part of developing a characters is showing your readers how they view and interact with their world. Cynical characters are going to think and talk about the world one way, while more optimistic characters are likely to think and talk about it in another. Your characters’ attitude will be reflected in their speech, and it will shape the language of any chapter written from their point of view.

Personification, a poetic device we use frequently in everyday speech, provides us with a window into a character’s outlook on a situation. A frightened heroine of a Gothic novel, for example, might describe a tower with windows that leer at her. In this case, the personification of the setting mirrors the personality of a licentious Gothic villain. This helps the writer establish the theme of the heroine’s struggle against the violence that threatens to shape her destiny.

At its core, personification is the art of giving human traits to something non-human. This gives characters a way of interacting with their world on a symbolic level. In a sense, personifying a concept helps your character understand it. Some characters (Shakespeare’s Hamlet comes to mind) may even use personification as a means of coping with a situation that they are unable to control. When your readers can get a firsthand glimpse at one of the mental processes your character uses to navigate their world, it becomes easier to get engaged with a character and stay interested in their development.

Poets use personification to express their unique viewpoints on the world; you and I use this poetic device as well in our everyday speech. It makes sense for your characters to think about concepts in terms of human traits, and the traits that your characters see in things tell your readers a good deal about their personalities.

Not Just a Punctuation Mark: Apostrophe in Prose

Raindrop hanging from a roseWhen we hear the word “apostrophe,” most of us think of the punctuation mark denoting possessives and contractions. However, it also refers to a poetic device that can lend strong emotion to your prose.

We use apostrophe when we have our characters addressing dialogue to an absent party. Sometimes, the addressee is another character who is simply not present in the scene; other times, the addressee is a personification of an abstract concept, like love or death. John Donne’s sonnet Death, be Not Proud is frequently cited as a stunning example of this device.

In prose, apostrophic speech is neither so structured nor so lengthy as it tends to be in poetry. A character may address a line or two to an absent lover, a deceased brother-in-arms, or even a rainstorm that won’t leave the neighborhood. In these moments, we see characters expressing their innermost thoughts in their own words. Apostrophic speech in prose tends to be intimate and emotional; it gives us an opportunity to show the character expressing emotion without telling the audience that “Jane wished she could tell Deborah how much she’d meant to her.”

Apostrophes should be used carefully in fiction, because it’s easy to turn a powerful emotional tidbit into an awkward, unrealistic segue from your story. The shorter your apostrophic lines are, the better – especially when you’re first experimenting with the device. As you develop a feel for apostrophe, you’ll be able to use longer lines without breaking the flow of your story.

Although dialogue between characters should make up the vast majority of the speech in your prose, there are some things that a character can’t or won’t say to another character’s face. These things can be conveyed efficiently and powerfully by briefly using apostrophe. Although it can be a difficult device to master, it can help you develop your characters through showing, rather than telling, what’s on their minds.

Yes, You Can Use Synecdoche in Your Prose (and Sometimes You Should)

Peaches in a bowlSynecdoche is generally defined as a poetic device; it describes what we do when we describe an entity by referring to one of its parts. Despite its classification as a poetic device, we use synecdoche frequently in prose as well as in everyday speech. A rancher uses synecdoche when describing his two hundred head of cattle, and a ship’s captain uses it when he speaks of the seventy souls on his vessel. A skilled prose writer uses synecdoche to draw the reader deep into the world of a written work.

Synecdoche does so much more than just add variety to our descriptions. It also reflect the speaker’s thought process and the world that shaped it. We can tell a lot about a speaker from the words he or she uses as shorthand for other concepts. A single mother in Victorian London may occasionally refer to her four children as four hungry mouths, while a warlord in an ancient Mesopotamian setting may refer to his loyal followers as his six thousand spears. In both of these instances, we get a glimpse into the character’s innermost thoughts. The words they use to represent the concepts of “children” and “followers” tell us which aspects of these concepts are (at least momentarily) most important to them.

Synecdoche is a subtle yet powerful tool for describing a character’s thought process and attitude toward an object, another character, or a situation. Using this device skillfully can enliven prose and shed light on a character’s personality without the need for excessive description. When the time comes to use a synecdoche in your prose, think carefully about which parts of a concept mean the most to your character. Although there are many common uses of this device that work well in prose, you may occasionally find it rewarding to invent a synecdoche that you haven’t seen in use before.